The story of “Happy Birthday to You,” thought to be the most popular song in the English language, may have began more than 120 years ago—but it’s been making headlines recently thanks to a much-watched legal battle going on in Los Angeles. Earlier this week, Judge George H. King of the United States District Court there ruled that the copyright claimed on the song since 1988 by music publisher Warner/Chappell and its parent company, Warner Music Group, is invalid. The judge’s ruling—if it stands—will prevent the company from collecting millions of dollars in licensing fees every year for the song’s use, and may return “Happy Birthday to You” to the public domain.
“Good morning to you/Good morning to you/Good morning, dear children/Good morning to all.” Back in 1893, as the story goes, Kentucky kindergarten teacher Patty Smith Hill wrote these lyrics. She worked with her sister Mildred J. Hill to compose a simple melody that would make it easy for Patty’s young students to sing along. The resulting song, “Good Morning to All,” was included in a book, “Song Stories for the Kindergarten,” published by the Clayton F. Summy Company. At the time, the sisters reportedly assigned the publisher the copyright, in exchange for a portion of the book’s sales.
Sometime early in the 20th century, the now-familiar birthday lyrics—the author or authors of which were unclear—had emerged to go along with the “Good Morning to All” tune, and in 1935, Summy Co. registered a copyright for a version of “Happy Birthday to You.” That copyright—acquired by Warner/Chappell in its purchase of Summy’s successor, Birchtree Ltd., in 1988—is at the center of a landmark trial that has been unfolding in the Los Angeles courts since 2013.
Since 1988, Warner/Chappell’s control of “Happy Birthday to You” has allowed the company to collect licensing fees every time the song was used as part of a profit-making enterprise. Most often, this applied to things like movies, TV shows, stage productions, greeting cards—but the copyright claim could technically also be used to charge any business that sought to use the song publicly, such as a restaurant owner or staff singing it to honor a patron’s birthday. According to some estimates, such licensing fees have brought in some $2 million annually, a portion of which goes to the Association for Childhood Education International, a charity designated by the Hill family.
The current lawsuit began after Warner/Chappell charged Jennifer Nelson, an independent filmmaker, $1,500 to use “Happy Birthday to You” in a documentary she planned to make about the song. In 2013, she filed suit against the company, arguing that the song should no longer be subject to copyright restrictions and asking Warner to return all licensing fees it had collected since at least 2009. In the trial that followed, lawyers for Nelson and the other independent artists who joined her suit claimed that the copyright had been invalid since at least 1922.
As a challenge to long-term copyright claims, and an example of a corporation exerting control over a common cultural artifact, the “Happy Birthday” trial attracted international attention, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. As one of Nelson’s lawyers, Mark Rifkin, told the New York Times in July: “Most people look at it and say, ‘How could anyone claim to own a copyright to that song? And that’s a pretty good question.” As the tangled story of “Happy Birthday to You” played out in the court case, the attorneys for both sides argued over various points in the 120-year-long process, even debating whether the Hill sisters actually wrote the song in the first place.
In his 43-page decision, issued on September 22, Judge King ruled the copyright invalid, finding that though Summy Co. may have owned the copyright to “Good Morning to All,” it never had proper rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. According to King, it was not entirely clear that the Hill sisters had written the original song, but in any case they never asserted a claim for the lyrics, though they did sue for rights for the original melody. When Summy asserted the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You” in 1935, the judge ruled, they didn’t legally obtain the rights from the lyrics’ authors, making the copyright invalid.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys say they will now move to qualify the lawsuit as a class action, and try to collect licensing fees Warner/Chappell has charged going back to 1988. In the wake of the verdict, a spokesman for Warner/Chappell told the press that the company was “looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.” For her part, Nelson gave a statement calling the judge’s ruling a “great victory for musicians, artists and people around the world who have waited decades for this.”
Robert Brauneis, a law professor at George Washington University who has studied the song’s history extensively, cautions that this week’s verdict doesn’t explicitly put “Happy Birthday to You” back in the public domain—yet. As he told the Los Angeles Times: “It does leave open some questions. If [the Hill sisters] didn’t convey the rights to Summy Co., then is there someone else that might still own them?”